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The Portuguese delivered his very best on a crucial night at the Calderon with a superb hat-trick in an intensely disputed derby at Atletico to keep his side on course for La Liga

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By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Editor

The image spoke a thousand words. Head in hands and sunk to his knees on the Santiago Bernabeu turf, Cristiano Ronaldo cut a forlorn and frustrated figure as Real Madrid were held to a goalless draw at home to Valencia on Sunday.

The Portuguese had done everything but score, setting up team-mates for spurned opportunities, forcing Vicente Guaita into a string of saves and even hitting the woodwork. But ultimately, albeit by the finest of margins, he had failed to deliver. And he knew it.

But how that changed on Wednesday.

Madrid had not lost to city rivals Atletico since 1999 but against a team given a new lease of life since the arrival of Diego Simeone as coach and baying for blood in a vibrant Vicente Calderon, this looked like the most difficult derby in years.

Pressed deep and pushed onto their back foot for much of the opening quarter of the game, Madrid looked less than comfortable against an intense and clearly committed Atletico team who were giving as good as they were getting, and more than matching Mourinho's men. All except for one, that is.


Back on song | Ronaldo had looked a frustrated figure on Sunday against Valencia

With 24 minutes played, Madrid won a free kick some 30 yards from goal. Up stepped Cristiano to unleash an unstoppable swerving shot which went one away and then the other before nestling in the bottom right corner with Atletico goalkeepeer Thibaut Courtois motionless on his goal line.

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It was a moment of unquestionable genius from a man much maligned for his failure to score set pieces in the current campaign. But this one was his third in four matches, the best of the lot and, more importantly, he did it when it mattered most.

Ronaldo's sensational strike hit Atletico hard and Madrid looked the better side for the remainder of the half. But a rousing reaction after the interval saw the locals level through Radamel Falaco's header and the Calderon was rocking. So, too, were Real.

For the first time in the game, Mourinho was up from his seat on the sidelines as for the fourth occasion in recent weeks, his charges were drawing a game they needed to win and, more significantly, losing their grip on La Liga.

Once again, Madrid needed a hero and once again, that hero was Ronaldo. With his team-mates toiling and his coach clearly concerned, the Portuguese stood above all others and thrust his side back into the ascendancy as he advanced down the left channel, cut inside and launched an extraordinary dipping drive which sailed over Courtois' despairing dive and under the crossbar to make it 2-1.

CRISTIANO RONALDO | 52 GOALS IN 2011-12
LA
LIGA
CHAMPIONS
LEAGUE
COPA
DEL REY

SPANISH SUPERCOPA
40
(32 games)
8
(8 games)
3
(5 games)
1
(2 games)

This one was perhaps even better than his first and this time, there was no way back for the home side. Ronaldo's brilliance had put paid to an adventurous Atletico outfit, not once but twice, and Real remained in control for the rest of the match.

The Portuguese then hit his hat-trick as he converted from the spot after Diego Godin's clumsy challenge on Gonzalo Higuain. That was his 12th Liga treble and the third equalled his own Pichichi record of 40 strikes in a single season, having earlier surpassed the 50-goal milestone for the second term in succession in all competitions. And in 2011-12, Ronaldo has also scored more second-half goals in a solitary campaign than anyone else in the history of Spanish football, taking his total after the interval to 25 to eclipse the previous record of 23 set by Athletic Bilbao legend Telmo Zarra in 1950-51.

And he wasn't finished yet, either. As the time ticked away, Ronaldo took up possession in midfield, drove forward and freed substitute Jose Callejon on the right to make it 4-1 and round off a performance of epic proportions with his 11th Liga assist of the season.

The manner of the display was hugely impressive but the Portuguese produced when it mattered most and that will be most pleasing of all for Mourinho and Madrid. Cristiano has been criticised in the past for failing to show up in crucial matches, and was even jeered at the Bernabeu earlier this season following a poor showing in the 3-1 league defeat to Barcelona, when he missed two clear chances which would perhaps have changed the course of that Clasico clash.

THE TABLE WITH SIX GAMES LEFT

  P W D L Pts

Real Madrid
32 26 4 2 82

Barcelona
32 24 6 2
78

On Wednesday, however, as the Liga looked to be slipping from their grasp, Ronaldo stepped up to the plate and celebrated with a veritable feast. Six games still remain and tough tests await for Madrid, not least the tantalising trip to Camp Nou on April 21. But thanks to their masterful Madeiran, they will approach the final fixtures with a four-point lead instead of just two and in this kind of form, even the forthcoming foray to Catalunya will hold less fear.

So while Lionel Messi continues to smash records for Barcelona, what Ronaldo is doing for Madrid is simply sensational, too. The 27-year-old could yet emulate the Argentine and surpass 60 strikes this season but, more importantly, he has proven that he is the man for the big occasion. And his performance on Wednesday may just have sealed La Liga.

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